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Norfolk native Rob Fisher returns to kick off Virginia Arts Festival

Norfolk native Rob Fisher is the music director and conductor of "Sweeney Todd," the opening production of the 2024 Virginia Arts Festival. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Arts Festival)
Norfolk native Rob Fisher is the music director and conductor of "Sweeney Todd," the opening production of the 2024 Virginia Arts Festival. (Photo courtesy of the Virginia Arts Festival)


The Virginia Arts Festival begins its season April 13 with a production of “Sweeney Todd” featuring the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Norfolk native Rob Fisher as musical director.

Fisher is a well-known Broadway musician who was the founding director of the Encore! series, where organizers put on performances of well-known American musicals. “Chicago: The Musical” became one of the most popular Broadway musicals following its inclusion in the Encore! series with Fisher’s musical direction.

Fisher has worked with the Virginia Arts Festival for several years and was appointed The Goode Family Artistic Advisor For Musical Theater and American Songbook in 2022.

WHRO's Mechelle Hankerson spoke with Fisher about his return to Norfolk for the festival’s kick-off event.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Norfolk native Rob Fisher returns to kick off Virginia Arts Festival

Mechelle Hankerson: Before we talk about your return to Norfolk, I wanted to talk a little bit about your start in Norfolk. Tell me a little bit about how you got from here to Broadway?

Rob Fisher: My route was a very roundabout route because I grew up there near the beach and thought I'd be a marine biologist and I went to Duke University to be a marine biologist. But all the time growing up I was involved in music, starting at age six.

I went to Bayview Elementary School, and by the time I was in the fifth grade, I was playing the piano for all the school assemblies and everything. I never thought twice about it. I was just, if there was music happening at the school or the church, I was doing it. So I knew I'd always be doing music.

But then I went off to Duke to be a marine biologist, but also majored in music and then I just kept getting music jobs.

Eventually, I got a master's degree in music at American University in Washington D.C., where I was also music director of a show at Arena Stage and that show went to Broadway before I even finished graduate school. And I thought, 'oh, might as well see what this is,' not really thinking I was going to move there and have a career there, but that's what happened.

So yeah, it started on the beach in Norfolk and ended up on the theater district of New York City.

MH: What drew you to music? If you were interested in marine biology and the beach and nature and science that seems very different from music. What was it about music that kept you coming back?

RF: I think it was something as basic as eating and sleeping. Music was just always going on in my head.

I just thought marine biology sounded like a much more stable career than music, but the world just had different ideas.

I knew I'd always be doing music, and I thought there might be a balance, but really when music took over, there was no balance. It was all music. Still, I have to get out into nature on a regular basis. So nature and music are what keep me going.

MH: What was it like coming from Hampton Roads and going to the theater world and not just small-time theater, but big-time theater?

RF: I'm glad to not have grown up in [New York City], and I've never really fully adjusted to being a city person, but it is where all the best people want to go to make music, to make theater, to create musicals. It's the magnet that pulls everybody there.

It took me a while to realize that I could work with all the best people -- that was maybe coming from Hampton Roads, that may have taken me longer than somebody from New York who had a better idea of what the whole big picture looked like. But it turns out I could play with the big kids and it's been amazing.

M.H: What would you tell someone, a kid, a young adult, someone who is here in Hampton Roads who might feel like they can't go somewhere like Broadway because they're from here? What would you tell them?

RF: I'd tell them that's baloney because people in New York come from all over the place.

Even in our cast. I know some of them come from the Midwest, some from California, but they all had a big presence in New York City. It's not that many born New Yorkers that have big careers. It's people from other places.

Plus, the big thing I'd say to everybody of every age is get your skills together, get your training together. The expectation is for you to be able to do more than one thing. Assume now that you can sing, that you can move and that you can act and you can make one of those your main focus, but you have to be able to do all three.

What's amazing about Hampton Roads now is it's becoming known for the folks coming from the Governor's School, there's a lot of presence in New York of Hampton Roads, folks that got their early training down there and then came to New York.

I did a concert with Adrienne Warren not too long ago. I've done a couple with her, one very recently and she'll be coming back this spring to sing there. She's a big deal in New York City and she grew up right there [in Portsmouth].

MH: I'm glad you mentioned your cast. I wanted to shift a little bit and to talk about the show. Why "Sweeney Todd?" I get the sense that it's different, it's unique.

RF: I watched "Sweeney Todd" when it was a new show, and I didn't understand the enthusiasm at that time, but I have watched its popularity grow and grow and grow and grow.

I think it's a cultural thing, and this I could just go on and on making up bologna about, but people like to see scary stuff. I think people are drawn to the worst things that happen in the news.

I believe children should be exposed to fairytales where bad things happen. I think it must be necessary for our nervous systems or something to have a good controlled scare.

So this is gruesome, but gruesome in such an exaggerated way that people get a lot of enjoyment out of it. And I think there are a lot of fantasy shows streaming these days, and it's very much like one of those. I think a lot of that audience are fans of Sweeney Todd.

It’s a concert with a symphony orchestra stage, so we won't be able to get as gruesome as the real production gets, but we will be suggesting the bad things that happen. But it's done in such an artful way that it's never frightening or disgusting or horrible, but it is like a fairytale and it's just like one of the best stories of revenge ever.

MH: So without spoiling anything, without giving away anything that you guys have worked, is there anything that you're really excited for people to see when they come to the show?

RF: I know people from multiple different performing arts worlds who were coming to hear these particular people do these particular roles.

We have two that are regulars at the Metropolitan Opera: [The actor playing] Sweeney Todd, Rod Gilfry, and the actor playing Pirelli, Richard Troxell. And [Troxell's] actually going to be in rehearsal for an opera at the Met at the time and taking off time to come to us and do this. Their singing in that hall is going to be incredible.

And Chuck Cooper, who's one of the greatest Broadway actors ever, Tony Award-winning, just powerful, powerful actor when he sings with powerful Rod Gilfry, we'll never ever hear it that well-sung again, and it won't have ever been sung that well before.

So I think there’s going to be a lot of thrill in the heft of the music.

We're going to have 70 or 80 members of the Virginia Symphony Chorus pounding out their music, which is really great. And you never get to hear it in a production with such big choral forces. And then we'll have the whole Virginia Symphony and it's seldom you get to hear it with those kind of forces.

So I think the story will be well told and powerful because of these performers that we have.

MH: What is your favorite song in Sweeney Todd?

RF: I have several that are running through my head, but the one that's most frequently running through my head is “Pretty Women.” It's a duet between Sweeney and Judge Turpin, and those are those two great voices I mentioned earlier.

That duet is set up so beautifully because we think something really gruesome is about to happen and the music builds and builds and builds, and then these two baritones start singing about how beautiful women are. … The melody is gorgeous. It's some of Sondheim’s most beautiful music, but the way it gets set up is just so exciting and fun. It's fun.

MH: Are you looking forward to any restaurants or any favorite nature you plan on visiting while you're in town?

RF: I definitely have to go for a walk on the beach, and it doesn't matter which beach. I grew up on the beach at Ocean View, and that's probably the most convenient.

I like walking along the Elizabeth River also because it's been groomed so nicely, which is going to be a little more convenient since I will be busy day and night once I get there.

If I had time to go to a favorite restaurant -- oh my goodness, that's hard. I have a lot. It would have to be seafood. If there's time, I do love going down to Bubba's at Lynnhaven Inlet and sitting outside. It'll be on my mind. Nobody needs to bring me food from there. Their food needs to be enjoyed out on that deck.

The Virginia Arts Festival will present “Sweeney Todd” April 13 at Chrysler Hall. Get more information and purchase tickets at vafest.org.

The performance is sponsored in part by WHRO Public Media. WHRO's Vice President of News, Maurice Jones, is chair of the Virginia Arts Festival Board of Directors. Jones is not involved with WHRO Journalism's editorial decisions.

Mechelle is News Director at WHRO. She helped launch the newsroom as a reporter in 2020. She's worked in newspapers and nonprofit news in her career. Mechelle lives in Virginia Beach, where she grew up.

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